Johnny Depp Joins Reese Witherspoon and Julia Roberts in Bringing Literary Giants to the Small Screen

Johnny Depp/Photo © Image Worx/Shutterstock
Johnny Depp/Photo © Image Worx/Shutterstock

When we speak about the golden age of anything, it's almost always in hindsight. This often means looking back in envy and frustration at having arrived too late to the pop cultural party and bemoaning the sense that everything worth doing, hearing, reading, or watching has been done, discussed, and archived on Netflix. It's hard not to yearn for the early adopter's thrill of experiencing the firsthand wonders of a Preston Sturges screwball comedy, a John Coltrane free jazz riff, or a Virginia Woolf modernist masterpiece fresh from the source.

But there is one pop culture medium currently climbing the vertical axis en route to the halcyon period future generations will romanticize and analyze, while jealously wishing they'd experienced it firsthand. That medium, of course, is none other than television -- the much-maligned scourge of concerned parents, opiate of homework-afflicted kids and all-purpose cultural pestilence that inspired '70s bumper stickers proclaiming: "Burn Your TV!"

However, the small screen has undergone big changes (mostly for the better) since the peak of anti-TV fervor.  For the past few years, shows like "Mad Men," "The Wire," and "Breaking Bad" have arguably delivered more consistently innovative and immersive storytelling than even the best art-house films deliver with any regularity. Now it seems that TV has kicked up its quality control level into the lofty realm of the truly highbrow, with a passel of recently announced shows based on classic literature. Over the past two weeks alone, Reese Witherspoon, Julia Roberts, and M. Night Shyamalan have set up small screen iterations of "Great Expectations," "Taming of the Shrew," and "Moby Dick" respectively. And because no tribute tour of the Great Books would be complete without a medley of Shakespeare's greatest hits, Johnny Depp revealed yesterday that he's joined forces with Yellow Bird, the Swedish production company behind the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo adaptations, to produce an entire series based on the works of that prolific playwright from Stratford-on-Avon.

TV's evolution from the boob tube to Bard tube remains among the most fascinating and unexpected new super-species to emerge out of the pop cultural miasma. By any measure, TV has transcended its origins as the medium of mindlessness into a high-definition venue for the best and worst in contemporary multimedia storytelling. The result is a staggering breadth of offerings ranging from "Homeland" to "Hoarders." Put a different way, TV has become an eerily accurate snapshot of what it's like to be alive in the world today.

The primary reason the small screen has flourished creatively while film has flatlined has more to do with the economics of the entertainment industry than with any particular movement of artists or visionaries. Because movies are much more expensive to produce and market than even the highest quality television show, film execs have become increasingly reluctant to make big bets on projects that challenge moviegoers to venture beyond the formulas proven to put butts in seats: date movies, action movies, feel good movies, or scary movies. Filmmakers' limitations in terms of theaters and running time have also hampered their ability to keep pace with the quality of high-end Cable TV. Think about it: Even if Martin Scorsese and Peter Jackson directed the respective movie versions of shows like "Boardwalk Empire" or "Game of Thrones," the results would likely be less satisfying than anything currently available on HBO, mostly because the shows' vast book-based narratives would have to  be whittled down to become the equivalent of a two-hour PowerPoint version of the same material. Likewise, "Breaking Bad" and "Girls" would likely never make it out of the studio slush pile if a producer couldn't produce demographic studies proving that twenty-something moviegoers will pay cash money to see these films in theaters.

It should be no surprise, then, that major film stars like Witherspoon, Roberts, and Depp would defect to the small screen to see their literary passion projects get made. Of course, the odds are just as high in TV as they are in film that any of these adaptations could fail to thrive, particularly given that they're all venturing into the high-risk zone of extrapolating contemporary interpretations of classic texts. But, hell, there are many worse ways to spend one's time and entertainment dollars than revisiting Moby Dick through the imagination of the filmmaker who made "The Sixth Sense" or Great Expectations via the actress who won an Oscar for playing June Carter Cash in "Walk the Line." And there's something irresistible about the prospect of watching Julia Roberts and Johnny Depp translate Shakespeare for contemporary TV viewers (first order of business: 'shrew' is Elizabethan term of art for 'bitch'). Not all of these shows will come out exactly As You Like It. But, Measure for Measure, TV's star-crossed love affair with the classics is not likely to be a case of Love's Labour's Lost or Much Ado About Nothing.